deborah allen, heather rankin & andrea lee norwood
Since at least Oedipus Rex playwrights have been using the theatre as a means to contend with larger than life myths, big concepts, sweeping themes and imposing figures, but Cape Breton’s own multi-award winning playwright Daniel MacIvor’s newest play is a meditation on Something Small.
A small town. A small boy. A small present. The struggle against small minds. In a small Nova Scotian town Patricia Branch, an affluent retired schoolteacher from the city, collides with lifelong residents Birdy and Dell just as each of them face a myriad of unfamiliar and unexpected challenges. While many of these challenges can be perceived as small: Patricia’s inflamed hand, Birdy’s feelings of anxious loneliness and Dell’s young son’s desire to change his name, they are, in fact, indicative of something much larger bubbling beneath the surface. Here Daniel MacIvor is invading the crevices of the subtleties of the human experience and exploring their often mammoth consequences.
Dame Deborah Allen plays Patricia with the utmost in propriety, culture and the authority of a schoolteacher. She has a bit of the dark, cynical, intellectual markings of urban life upon her, which makes her a fish out of water in her new neighborhood. She also is fighting a harsh battle against her aging body and often her frustrations with her own limitations are misplaced. Tightly wound and carefully guarded, it is fascinating to watch Allen reveal the various layers and facets of Patricia’s personality as Birdy, her housekeeper, inadvertently invades her private space again and again. Allen gives a beautifully commanding performance full of moments of honesty and delight and Patricia Branch is a character that reminds us how much we are missing by having so few interesting leading female characters over 50 in the Canadian Theatre.
Heather Rankin plays Birdy, who has been so shattered by the loss of her husband that she clings to anything within her control and ability to fix in attempt to restore order to her life now rendered unfamiliar. Rankin is the comic heart of the piece as Birdy’s good intentions so often go awry, both with her daughter Dell and with Patricia. As in MacIvor’s earlier play Bingo, Rankin’s delivery of MacIvor’s funniest lines is always pitch perfect. Yet, Birdy is also the most obvious in her vulnerabilities of the three women and it’s incredible to see Rankin go from eliciting throes of laughter from the audience to breaking their hearts in only a slight shift. Through Birdy we see that often it is the small words that can have the most devastating impact.
Andrea Lee Norwood, expertly dressed by Janet MacLellan, is Dell, a woman still inhabiting the remnants of her days as a Goth teenager, treading down an unconventional career path and doing her best to raise her young sons with compassion, acceptance, love and the guidance they need to survive the often brutal contemporary world. Norwood oscillates beautifully between behaving like a sullen child with Birdy and showing strength and maturity when advocating as a mother in her conversations with Patricia. This is nicely mirrored by Rankin, who becomes the pouty child with Patricia and asserts herself clearer at home with her daughter. Norwood’s careful manoeuvring between Dell’s prickly outer shell and the genuine tenderness she exhibits once it’s gone, once again highlight how poignant the small moments in life can be.
MacIvor’s greatest accomplishment as a director here is his expert use of silence. In a play that explores the subtle and the small, often it is the wordless moments that convey much more than speech. The silence also makes great use of Heather Rankin’s talent for hilarious facial expressions. A play without his signature monologues directed to the audience, MacIvor creates characters here who often are trapped by their inability to use language as effectively, poetically or intellectually as they may like. A mislaid word can become a weapon with the power to destroy a relationship, while the opposite is also true, a small gesture of kindness can give someone whose days were bleak an unexpectedly nice afternoon.
If Bingo was MacIvor’s quest for a “happily ever after” Something Small is a celebration of the compromises in kindness and friendship that make imperfect situations a little more bearable and the realization that often the solution to something that seems very big is something just as small.
Something Small plays at Chester Playhouse (22 Pleasant Street, Chester, Nova Scotia) August 7th- 10th at 8:00pm and August 10th at 2:00pm. Tickets are $18.00-$28.00. For more information or to book your tickets please visit this website or call the Box Office at 902.275.3933 or 1.800.363.7529.